It Came from the Vault...Memorial Art Gallery

Have you ever wondered what an art museum has stashed away in their storage room? If you hurry you can still catch a show designed to give you some answers.

Through June 9, 2013 there's a hoot of an exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY. Playfully titled It Came From the Vault by the show's curator Marie Via, the museum's Director of Exhibitions, the show sheds light on why some of the works it holds in storage are rarely exhibited. It's a big, boisterous show of several hundred pieces. If you can't find something you really like you're just not trying. Here's a link to the Memorial Art Gallery's page about the exhibition.

Sometimes the work that languishes in storage just doesn't fit the themes that the museum's curators develop for their shows. Other times the work is awaiting cleaning or restoration. Or the pieces are a bit odd and the curators don't quite know what to make of them. There are a few truly odd pieces here to ponder.

Or, they may be works on paper that can't have sustained exposure to bright light. The Winslow Homer watercolor below is an example, Paddling at Dusk,from 1892. Homer does a great balancing act between the relatively simplified figure (who has an active silhouette but almost nothing else in the way of details) and the boldly stated waves and ripples. I love the simple contrasts of the warm hues of the paddler and the boat against all the surrounding cool colors. (please excuse the reflections from the gallery's lights at the top of this and a few of the other photos below).

Below is a painting by the less well known Birger Sandzen (American, 1871- 1956). Up close one gets almost lost in a sea of heavy palette-knife-applied pigment. All you can see is the richness of the surface. Then stepping back the painting transforms completely and one sees it's also about deep space, light and atmosphere.

A real treat for me was this woodcut by the Polish artist Janinn Konarsky (1900-1975), an artist I hadn't known about before, which always makes for a little extra excitement of discovery. Konarsky playfully tilts up the angle of the tennis court to let us see the action of her four figures. This could have made for problems with so much empty pavement to cover. So the artist puts in this lovely subtle texture to the court's orange surface. The trees that line the court add a muscular rhythm of their own, as if they're aching to grab a racquet and join the game too. 

Kathleen McEnery (American, 1885 -1971) was there with a big impressive painting. Marie Via's notes for the painting add "The artist was about twenty-two when she painted this bold and modern woman." McEnery, another artist I hadn't known obviously knew her stuff. 

Her dates are almost exactly the same as the much better known artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and like Hopper, she too studied at the New York School of Art with the famous painter and teacher Robert Henri. I wonder if they knew each other back then. And she had two of her paintings included in the historic Amory Show of 1913 (whereas Hopper only got one of his pieces included). McEnery later moved to Rochester and was for many years active with the Memorial Art Gallery. One wonders if her career might have gone very differently had she not been a woman in those times when female artists so often were ignored. I love coming across really strong work like this by artists who aren't household names. I think she's one of the stars of The Vault.

Via's show also had some very heavy hitters. Degas (French 1834-1917) weighs in with Dancers from about 1900. It's a pastel and charcoal drawing done on tracing paper and it's a real beauty. Degas liked to really get down and sink into his compositions, studying them and making all sorts of versions of the same basic pose of figures to extract the most expressive compositions. Perhaps this piece is on tracing paper as he'd borrowed the grouping from an earlier drawing or painting and wanted to continue exploring new possible arrangements of his shapes and colors. (There's an old quote from Degas where he urges young artist to do a drawing over ten times and then to do it over a hundred times. Sure he was exaggerating, but you get the idea. And he often followed his own advice).

Here's a detail of the central section of Degas' pastel. I love the squeezed tiny intervals of empty space in between all the torsos, arms, and heads. Here Degas is showing us how much visual energy can be achieved just by careful placement and positioning of his forms. It's a delightful maze-like passage. This guy is good.

And in honor of the spirit of the unexpected, which was one of Marie Via's ideas for this wide ranging show, here's a piece I loved by another artist who's new to me, Carol Aquilano, who is on the staff at the Memorial Art Gallery. It's North River, Marshfield, MA, a sumi ink and acrylic wash on paper piece from 2003. 

I was immediately drawn to it for its artful balance between heavily patterned grasses played off against smoother passages. Aquilano gets a wonderfully wide range of greens and grays to do a lot for her in this piece. My eye was immediately reminded of all the great Charles Burchfield watercolors of waving grasses and leaves I had seen just the day before over in Buffalo, NY at the Burchfield Penny Art Center.

Marie Via was kind enough to give me a personal guided tour of her show which was fun. I had a chance to tell her how much I loved the show's title and the spooky old-horror-movie image of the spaced out woman. Art is serious business, of course, but it's not without humor sometimes. As a kid who wasted countless hours growing up watching really bad science fiction movies on late night TV in a Rochester suburb, as soon as I saw the title for this show I knew I had to come. Glad I did. Highly recommended.


  1. We are thrilled that you were able to make it. We appreciate the thoughtful review, and thank you for sharing it with your readers.

    If one can't make it to Rochester, NY by June 9th, you can view the online catalog via ISSUU :

  2. I think it was a great idea to stage a show like "It Came from the Vault." Especially fun to walk from the serene displays of Memorial Art Gallery's American Paintings galleries, with lots of wall space between each piece to the boisterous crowd scene of the Vault show. There's a place for both kinds of shows.

  3. Nice post, Philip! Sounds like a great show. I was mildly disappointed there was no mention from the gallery about Carl Peters....maybe he's not in the vault, maybe he's a regular exhibit there(??) I know he was a native to the area and his bio mentions the Memorial extensively. Anyhow, wonderful post.

  4. Thanks Rod. I know Car Peters paintings- saw a big show a few years ago at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD.

  5. I was very pleased to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out the new stuff you post.


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